Will Anderson Jr: Why the Alabama star is the best player at the 2023 NFL Draft | NFL News

Alabama's Will Anderson Jr is one of the coveted stars of the 2023 NFL Draft

Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr is one of the coveted stars of the 2023 NFL Draft

Will Anderson is finally here. The NFL has been expecting him – him and all his gold-encrusted pass-rushing run-clobbering splendour. 

The 2023 Draft is short of its glaring blue-chip juggernauts and loaded with question marks as to talent translation at the next level, but in Anderson, as has been common consensus, comes your long-established sure-thing. A worthy No 1 overall pick at last year’s Draft and now the head of a depth-rich edge rusher table.

Here comes Nick Saban and Alabama’s chief doorman, parading one of college football’s most prolific entry-denied rates as the not-so-conspicuous game-wrecker with main character pass-rush glitz and the humble hero willingness to fulfil grunt work run duties.

As Chase Young governed a slim 2020 edge class there had already been murmurs of the five-star prospect about to begin life with the Crimson Tide: a fire-cracker shy of conventional pass-rusher size, with staggering burst to go with sharp instincts, size-defiant power and A-lister potential.

Three years on, appreciation for his production and box-ticking arsenal might be as much about the mould and make-up of the modern offensive lineman and the direction of NFL offenses as it is his own skillset. The construction of today’s big men differs from that of yesterday; not only can they maul and bruise with the brawniest of defenders, but they can skip and hop to the tune of the shiftiest. As the speed of rushers has heightened offensive coordinators have fought back through option-heavy designs as a means to delaying the hunter, even if just for half-a-second longer. Anderson wins through force, he wins through explosiveness, he also tends to see past your deception.

Anderson has been widely-projected to fall to the Cardinals at No 3 overall - but could the Texans look to snap him up at No 2?

Anderson has been widely-projected to fall to the Cardinals at No 3 overall – but could the Texans look to snap him up at No 2?

He tops the bulk of non-quarterback draft boards. Scour mock drafts and analyst circles and it may feel as though the Anderson obsession has cooled off – it hasn’t. As much tends to be the case with a prospect whose stock barely offers a chink.

Georgia’s Jalen Carter, his legal situation aside, is arguably right there with him. The defensive tackle colossus who neutralises every gap across the line of scrimmage with equal venom and ease, who jumps between smothering blockade and get-skinny intruder, who can morph from downright bulldozer in 0 or 2-tech head-on alignments into a break-and-slide glider in the face of outside zone run schemes. Texas running back Bijan Robinson offers his own case for being the most polished prospect, marred by the asterisk of his position’s diminished value. Brian Branch stands to be your quintessential do-it-all safety. And were Bryce Young a little taller and a little meatier he too might be spoken of in the realm of Anderson-esque readiness more prominently than has been the case.

Anderson leaves Alabama having recorded the second-most sacks in school history after Derrick Thomas with 34.5 across his 41 career games. During that time he also led the nation with 207 pressures, 71 quarterback hits and 58.5 tackles for loss, winning a National Championship and twice clinching the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the best defensive player in college football in the eyes of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA).

Former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian previously nicknamed him ‘The Terminator’. For good reason.

Will Anderson Jr career stats

Year Games Total tackles Tackles for loss Sacks
2020 13 52 10.5 7
2021 15 101 31 17.5
2022 13 51 17 10

So what does he do well on tape? Why the ridiculous consistency to his production? What of this starring role for Alabama? He does just about everything well.

Pre-snap, be it from a two-point or stand-and-go start, there is a taunting springiness to his tapping trailing foot as he uses it to rev up as if itching to explode, before timing his get-off to rehearsed perfection and breathing down the lineman’s neck in an instant. It comes with a sense of obscure intimidation and inevitability, its elasticity offering a foundation off which to attack any angle inside or out.

He bolts from his stance as if a sprinter from starting blocks, pumping his legs to generate power while maintaining a crouch from which he pogos himself up into the pads of opponents and forklifts them off their spot. He can lock onto an opponent’s pads with prying upper-body strength, he can thrust two-handed jabs to shudder linemen at the point of contact, he can rely on his hands and torque to keep his arms low before slapping or swimming beyond an over-committed obstacle, and yet among his perceived list of ‘could be better’ suggestions is a juiced up menu of pass rush moves. He wins without standout sleight of hand, time and time again.

When hands do become the focal point of a rush he turns to his speed to chop and feint or to yank opponents in a push-and-pull move; when his athleticism is asked to do the talking he shows tremendous core strength and balance to set wide before throwing his entire body weight onto his elongated leading leg and Euro-stepping back inside. Sometimes he will merge the two, batting the tackle’s hands to the ground before jinking back in. Not the twitchiest, not the most bendy, but good luck thwarting it.

As your bog-standard wide-set 5-tech he is a menace for translating short-area burst into shuddering bull-rushes that snap back the head of the tackle en route to the backfield, offering tried and tested variation to his angles of attack. As a run-stopper he can squirm to disengage hands-on-shoulders shoving matches to both plug inside lanes as well as crab in pursuit of wide zone concepts.

Will Anderson Jr Scouting Combine measurements

Height 6’3 1/2″
Weight 253lbs
Arm length 33 7/8″
Hand size 9 7/8″
40-Yard Dash 4.6 seconds
10-Yard Split 1.61 seconds

Versatility can be king in today’s NFL, and Saban used him just about everywhere over his final two seasons at Alabama. Former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Pete Golding would describe how Anderson could ‘recreate the line of scrimmage’, hence the desire and freedom to use him as a three-down asset across multiple alignment techniques. 5-tech, 4-tech, 4i, 3 – he did the lot.

His Texas A&M game threw up a fun quirk that would allude to Golding’s outlook, one sequence seeing Alabama isolating Anderson on the edge of a lop-sided four-man rush for consecutive plays: three men bunched in 3, 4i and narrow 5-tech roles, with Anderson deployed as a 5 over on the opposite end of the line of scrimmage. Did they want the double-team? Were they trying to squeeze the quarterback out in Anderson’s direction? Was late pressure coming to punch the space left by a stunting Anderson? You can bet Texas A&M were asking all of the above and more.

The impact of an Anderson-sized pass rusher in the run game will please potential NFL suitors as much as knack for getting to the quarterback, both from a schematic standpoint and from a selfless team-player standpoint.

“When you go to strike a block and they’re coming off the ball and I go to use my hands – five points of contact to strike him and knock him back,” former Alabama DC Golding told reporters back in January 2022. “He’s so explosive from his legs, from his hips, to his hands, to be able to create separation and then disengage and get off of guys and go make plays. A lot of people are flesh magnets. They get into a guy they can’t get off. Or they can’t create the separation because they can’t come out of their hips.”

Anderson in action at the NFL Scouting Combine

Anderson in action at the NFL Scouting Combine

Saban would employ him as his most gifted baiter, Anderson skulking as the ‘read’ defender in option plays, holding his ground at the snap and absorbing the initial strike from the lineman assigned to him before grappling to meet the runner. In other instances he would bail him from the line and into zone coverage at the second level, and in other instances slide him over to play face-to-face with the guard from where he could press eject and dart east or west with the running back. In some instances Anderson would purely collapse the pocket in aid of drawing a quarterback into off-script territory outside where his teammates would be primed to mop up.

In the world of mobile, bootlegging quarterbacks he is a fully-equipped stalker with the play-recognition, change in direction and sideline-to-sideline speed to hunt horizontally. And while his size may not scream interior monster, he draws on a solid base to play low and burrow through A-gaps to blow up handoffs. For all the glam of his pass rush exploits, he takes on the rubbish too.

Putting his head down and raiding true pass sets is where the ‘wow’ moments lie, where he can rip off the edge and send offensive lineman hurtling into the backfield, where he can harness that springy ankle to pursue the tightest of ankles, where he makes light work of adjusting his footwork and pad leverage to avoid disruption in the face of initial contact.

Anderson bears the traits of your immediate impact guarantee, capable of winning in every way, playing every role and poised to make one lucky defensive coordinator very happy.

Don’t expect to see him stick around any longer than the No 3 overall pick.

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Who are the other top edges?

Tyree Wilson

Texas Tech's Tyree Wilson

Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson

  • School: Texas A&M (2018-2019), Texas Tech (2020-2022)
  • Height: 6’6″
  • Weight: 271lbs
  • Arm length: 35 5/8″
  • 2022: 61 tackles, 14 TFL, seven sacks

Tyree Wilson has pushed Anderson as close as any edge in the class by way of a teasing ceiling as one of this year’s mutant athletes juiced up on Super-Soldier Serum, acing all ‘this guy looks ginormous’ tests as he crouches at the line of scrimmage. Everything feels raw and untapped. When he finally figures it all out, when he finally puts it all together, the NFL could have a monster. Wilson wields phenomenal power at the point of attack, charging into contact with gaping strides and rocking opponents with one-armed jabs while unleashing a swooping over-hand move to claw his way around. Rather than possessing any notable twitch, he suffocates and wrenches tackles with his size and upper-body strength before burrowing his way from out-to-in, barely budging in the face of an opponent’s initial punch move in pass protection.

To watch him elevate opponents and plough them off their spot is quite the spectacle, as is the ease at which he swats guards and the subsequent tackle radius to stretch across multiple gaps in order to reach inside runners. For a man of his size he plays impressively low while using a subtle ghost move and throwing out an enormous stride before turning his lunge into a secondary trigger point to dip inside to the quarterback. Athletically, everything is there. It is the intricacies that will take him to the next level. There are occasions when he gets caught leaning into his man or mistiming his engagement at the snap and consequently negating his physical advantages through a lack of balance. But he awaits as a potential coach’s dream.

Nolan Smith

Georgia defensive lineman Nolan Smith

Georgia defensive lineman Nolan Smith

  • School: Georgia (2019-2022)
  • Height: 6’2″
  • Weight: 238lbs
  • Arm length: 32 5/8″
  • 2022: 18 tackles, seven TFL, three sacks

Georgia’s Nolan Smith is this year’s embodiment of the undersized pass rusher at 238lbs with one of the most natural contortion acts of the class as he flies, dips and streamlines off the edge. He possesses a devilish hop-and-ghost pass rush move whereby he seems to veil the direction of his attack by lowering his shoulder, momentarily lifting airborne to bait the tackle into overcommitting on the belief he has a forklift opening and instead grounding himself to breeze by. Smith meets the modern requirement for a seamless speed-to-power transition, landing a one-handed jab to establish his distancing early before slapping with his other hand to rise through the pocket.

He uses his strong base and quick hands to maintain leverage as he launches into crouched out-spread strides to side-step by the tackle, he is able to maintain downhill speed even when his upper body might be snapped backward, he offers that bouncy trailing ankle that serves as a pivot-trigger and allows him to disguise his angle of release at the snap, he brings a rake counter-move coupled with the footwork to twitch inside, he breaks off lineman to snuff runners and diagnoses option plays efficiently. Smith bends and weaves as well as any edge in the class with elite shutdown speed and sideways balance, as much setting him up to thrive in a stunt-heavy scheme like that of Kirby Smart’s at Georgia.

Will McDonald IV

Will McDonald IV

Will McDonald IV

  • School: Iowa State (2018-2022)
  • Height: 6’4″
  • Weight: 239lbs
  • Arm length: 34 7/8″
  • 2022: 36 tackles, 7.5 TFL, five sacks

Joining the undersized edge rusher club is Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV, who is also among the older members of the class as he prepares to turn 24 in June. What he may lack in bulldozing oomph compared to others, he seeks to make up for through unerring twitch and finesse to his pass rush planning and procedure. McDonald triggers into his first step and walks down opponents with the swaggering feints and shoulder dips of a slippery heavyweight boxer, hiding his point of attack and delaying engaging with his hands in view of prevailing through speed. He prides himself on a varied pass rush menu spearheaded by something of a renowned spin move and supported by a swim-and-climb motion.

Iowa would use him heavily as a defensive end in three-man fronts whereby obvious pass rush openings and opportunities were short in supply, though within that came evidence of his ability to disengage and slide east-to-west according to the direction of the run play. Among his methods of visiting the backfield is a stop-start move that sees him stutter mid-rush before re-triggering and using the disruption to slide through skinny gaps on the interior. He stabs, jabs, plants and explodes in a way that sees him react to initial pushback by using the secondary runway to his advantage. McDonald is a fun watch.

Lukas Van Ness

Lukas Van Ness

Lukas Van Ness

  • School: Iowa (2020-2022)
  • Height: 6’5″
  • Weight: 272lbs
  • Arm length: 34″
  • 2022: 36 tackles, 10.5 TFL, six sacks

Fascination with Lukas Van Ness has largely centred around his usage at Iowa, where he collected 13 sacks, 62 tackles and 19 tackles for loss despite never starting a game across 26 outings over two seasons. His skillset flashes when lined up as a wide 5-tech outside the tackle, from which point he turns his sharp first-step into the overwhelming bull rush on which much of his production tends to be based. He is clobbers and jolts with formidable power, long evasive arms and a solid base to drive home from, and while he remains one of the more raw options without the consistency of others in the class, his ascent and potential contributes to the sell.

Myles Murphy

Clemson defensive end Myles Murphy

Clemson defensive end Myles Murphy

  • School: Clemson (2020-2022)
  • Height: 6’5″
  • Weight: 268lbs
  • Arm length: 33 3/4″
  • 2022: 40 tackles, 11 TFL, 6.5 sacks

Clemson’s Myles Murphy grants himself an immediate advantage at the snap with the speed and timing of his first step get-off, using a rattling one-handed stab to dictate the distancing of his contact with the opposing lineman and forcing them back as he takes stretched strides to bend around the edge. He has demonstrated the ability to win with both speed and power up front, his elite upper-body strength enabling him to absorb contact with one arm while swimming with the other to penetrate the pocket, as well as allowing him to weld himself to opponents to set the edge as a lane-paver in the run game.

Murphy’s lateral quickness can allow him to occupy double gaps in wide three-man fronts, while coupling with his length in helping him break off his man to reach runners inside as well as making him effective in pursuit on outside zone plays. As much has contributed to suggestions of a long-term role on the interior. He shapes up as your conventional 4-3 defensive end with all the desired length and athleticism along with continued room for expansion to his pass rush and counter moves inside.

Keion White

Keion White

Keion White

  • School: Old Dominion (2017-2020), Georgia Tech (2021-2022)
  • Height: 6’5″
  • Weight: 285lbs
  • Arm length: 34″
  • 2022: 54 tackles, 14 TFL, 7.5 sacks

As far as case studies and developmental projects go, Keion White is among the most intriguing: he started out as a tight end at Old Dominion, transitioned to defensive end in 2019, opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid and transferred to Georgia Tech in 2021 before missing the first eight games after breaking his ankle. It makes for a truncated sample size. Though that doesn’t deter from the aesthetics of an emphatic first-step burst that launches him into the second phase of his pass rush, at which point he uses his rangy arms to jab lineman with smart distancing while driving on his long forceful strides to march men into retreat.

He is still raw, can occasionally invite offensive lineman to weigh him down by losing balance when darting off his mark and may lose the ball in option plays at times, but he plays with a faultless motor and ferocity in his efforts to breach the backfield if his first effort comes up short. White would line up primarily as a 5-tech in a 4-3, but there are eye-catching instances of him shifting into a 4i role on the inside whereby he ricochets between the guard and tackle with his get-skinny agility or dips his head and drives through shoulders while using those lengthy arms to sweep his way round. He comes with an elegant spin counter move, has impressive lateral agility and balance to break off blockers and hunt runners outside, and threatens a powerful bull-rush during which his upper-body strength excels. Somebody will fall in love with him.